The mythical STEM shortage – even the New York Times doesn’t get it…

Every day I keep hearing the drumbeat get louder….”We need more young people to enter these ‘vital’ STEM fields!  The future of our nation depends on it!” Or….”We need to allow more foreign immigrants in on H1-B and other guest visas because of an acute ‘skills shortage’ in vital STEM fields!”


With thousands of Americans still unemployed or underemployed and many people with high degrees doing service jobs at Starbucks, can anyone with a straight face argue that there is a shortage of skilled workers in STEM fields?

The question is rhetorical – because in spite of a glaring gap that you could drive a truck through between the rhetoric and reality, the attempt is being made over and over again.  What’s worse is that he who has the biggest bullhorn seems to have the most credibility, facts notwithstanding.

Does anyone today know what a true STEM shortage looks like? 

Yes, actually…I do. What I am about to describe is sounds so strange today that many under the age of 40 would suspect that I am talking about something that happened in another dimension or on another planet.  Rest assured, it happened here, in the good ole’ USA.

By sheer chance I had a front row seat in what actually was  a TRUE STEM shortage in the middle 1980s.

Anatomy of a true STEM shortage…    

During my college years (I graduated in 1987) I held a job at Polytechnic University in a graduate satellite campus.  Part of the job was to keep track of student records and payments and register students for classes.

During those years there was an explosion in technology and eve large companies were hard-pressed to keep up.  They were sending their employees to places like Polytechnic and footing the bill for their master’s degrees in such subjects as computer science, information systems, engineering and a host of other areas.

During the mass semester registration, about a third to half of the students would show up with a blank check from their employer.   Others would pay up-front and then request formal letters of completion at the end of the semester so they could get reimbursed by their employers.  I never actually ran the statistics, but I would guess that only about 1/3 of the students ever actually had to pay for their M.S. degrees during that period.

Students would tell me about the automatic raises they got as they pursued their degrees.  They would talk about the host of perks and fringes their degrees bought for them.  When a new technology came out – they would be back on campus as their employer would gladly foot the bill for yet more training.

This is a far cry from what we see today….

What we see today is a universe away from that heady time.  I would wager that many of these bright young people from the 80s have been downsized and outsourced – even though most are still of working age. They have gone literally from boom to bust in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Gone are the free educational opportunities.  They have been replaced by job descriptions that have pages upon pages of required skills that border on the Byzantine.  If a current senior employee has only 98 out of the required 100 skills, they will be fired in favor of someone cheap from abroad or someone fresh out of school who has dubious mastery of all 100.    There is no talk of on-the-job training.  Not even a discussion about the employee going out and seeking the training on their own dime.  They are just discarded like yesterday’s trash.

These are signs of a massive STEM glut – not a shortage.

Even the New York Times doesn’t get the scope of the STEM glut….

Yet even the New York Times trumpets the skills gap.  In their Sunday editorial “Reforms for Work Visas”   they are still buying into the skills shortage myth and the sister myth that all of this foreign talent leads to jobs through entrepreneurship..The latter is a topic for another post.  (Note:  I left the comments thread intact – they were roundly criticized for their point of view)

Although some of their suggestions make inherent sense, I have to ask who is minding the store? In an era of high unemployment in the US, high-skilled work should be going to qualified Americans first.  As the comments thread pointed out, it seems that there are no US engineers over the age of 50 in the USA?  How is that possible?  Since business is making an obvious mockery of anti-age discrimination laws, how can we trust any of the watch dogs that are there to see that business plays by the rules?

The only way around it is to make importation of foreign nationals VERY expensive.  Perhaps force them to pay a 25% premium for said worker.  After all, if there is a TRUE shortage and a TRUE skills mismatch, business will gladly pay the freight.  They proved that in the 1980s.  If its all a red herring to get cheap and compliant labor, then we have to make it too expensive for them to bother.

© 2013 – RGHicks  –

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3 Responses to The mythical STEM shortage – even the New York Times doesn’t get it…

  1. jgo says:

    I didn’t see a STEM talent shortage in the 1980s, but I did see full employment. I did see employers sponsoring new-hires for security clearances, relocating new-hires and transferred retained employees*, investing in 2-12 weeks of new-hire training (and then 2-4 weeks per year for retained employees). I saw employers willing to reimburse employees after they’d completed 1 or 2 relevant university classes per year with at least a C or B.

    We never had much problem finding good talent and maintaining a collegial environment.

    * In some cases, in a conglomerate with a real esate subsidiary, they would purchase the employee’s home and resell it, help them find and buy a new one at their new work location… as well as pre-pay or reimburse costs for moving and storage, temporary cleaning of clothing needed for work, a per diem for meals for the first couple weeks until they’d moved into new quarters.

    Now, there’s no telephone number or e-mail addr on job ads, and endless gauntlet of “trivial pursuit” quizzes over the phone aimed at finding flimsy pretexts on which to declare all US applicants “unqualified”, no flights to interviews (and no rental car or even pick-up at the airport by the hiring manager and no hotel and no meals), no relo assistance, no transition period assistance, very few clearances sponsored, little or no training beyond, “Here are the company policies. Sign that you’ve read and agree to them… and this NDA… and this transfer to the firm of all copyrights and patents you may obtain while employed here…”

    • Ruthmarie says:

      Full employment with all the perks you described indicates a net shortage. When people are being given free education and are virtually guaranteed employment with nice perks and good salaries (if they are any good) then you have a shortage. That scenario was the definition of a shortage.

      What we have now is a glut. Trying to confabulate it as a “skills mismatch” or the result of a poor educational system is simply a canard.

      One of the problems that I see going forward is that from the employees perspective, it will take a continuing or perpetual shortage in these fields to make going into them worthwhile. Therein lies the problem. A long educational pipeline almost requires near guaranteed employment opportunities to make taking these degrees at all desirable. You need to pretty much have a great job at a great salary baked into the cake in order to consider a 6-year doctorate or anything of that ilk.

      • jgo says:

        “Full employment with all the perks you described indicates a net shortage.”

        Perks? The only one that seemed to be a perk was the taking on the risk of selling the old house. The rest are just getting the distractions out of the way so people can focus on doing good work.

        “When people are being given free education”

        Who mentioned “free education”? There’s a big difference between education and new-hire training (and retained employee training). Training only works when you have a foundation of intelligence, talent, knowledge, ethics, etc.; that foundation is developed through education. The employers even got a tax break for interview, relo, and training expenses back then, but no more; one bad political move has been piled on another.

        “virtually guaranteed employment with nice perks and good salaries (if they are any good) then you have a shortage.”

        No, that’s just a sufficiency. Only if they have to hire people who are not any good, if they have to pay extravagant salaries (as compared with local costs of living), then there MIGHT be a temporary talent shortage… which would be quickly solved by the economic incentives as more people were drawn back into the field.

        What we have now is definitely a talent glut.

        Yes, NSF knew that they were changing the incentives so as to push US citizens out of PhD programs, simply because it would cost more for US citizens to get the PhD than the probable increased life-time earnings, while the guest-workers would have the possibility of US citizenship and improved quality of living. It’s right there in their inernal docs from the late 1980s.

        But being a great, productive STEM professional can be done, has been done, is being done without any degree at all. You don’t suddely go from being totally incapable the moment you’re handed a piece of paper (and the numbers of not so bright profs and PhD candidates we spoon-fed through makes me groan). Ability and productivity build with practice. In a way, that’s the worst part of this situation. So much US citizen STEM talent is being wasted!

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